A LIGHT IN THE GALAXY
FRIMA FOX HOFRICHTER
For Ann Sutherland Harris
© Frima Fox Hofrichter. I wish to thank my dear friend Merle Feld, whose autobiographical work A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999) helped me be more courageous in writing this essay.
An art dealer telephoned today with a question about Judith Leyster (1609–60),  the Dutch genre, portrait, and still-life painter, and offered to show me a painting that might be hers. When I was a graduate student, I would have considered such a call and request an exciting adventure, perhaps yielding the discovery of another aspect of this woman to whom I had chosen to bind my professional life. Today, years after completing my doctoral dissertation, I have many strong and conflicting feelings as my whole history with this artist comes before me. The articles and lectures, the book, the exhibition at the Frans Halsmuseum and the Worcester Art Museum, the smaller exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts—each has made me reexamine this artist's work and reconfigure my relationship with her. With each, I felt as I do today—an initial excitement, a closeness as I am bound to her for a true eternity—yet beyond what I thought I had bargained for. I have a connection with her across time, and sometimes its intensity and relentlessness scare me. I keep thinking that I have paid my debt to her, but maybe I have not. So I will speak to the dealer, see the painting, and write this essay.
I know male art historians whose subjects have been inextricably woven into their own lives—they have spoken to the relatives of their
The subject of one's dissertation provides a connection that is especially strong and enduring. Gail Levin, no matter how well or frequently she writes on Jo Hopper, will surely always be associated with Edward, and Barbara Bloemink, even should she investigate and publish on other twentieth-century artists, will always be “the Florine Stettheimer person.” Because I wrote on Leyster at the beginning of my career, senior male colleagues have asked from time to time if I was finished with this “women stuff.” The quality of my work was not in question, only my decision to stay with her. I sometimes felt she had become so powerful, so overwhelming, I was not sure there was any me left—I was (am) “the Judith Leyster person.” I wanted to move on, but when I turned down invitations to write “Leyster” articles and “Leyster” dictionary entries, I felt I had betrayed her. For me, she exists in the here and now. I do not have to visit a cemetery to feel her presence. She was buried on a farm in Heemstede, outside Haarlem, that has been built over, and her grave is not to be found. I need only take the train to Washington, D.C., and go to the National Gallery of Art. There, in her Self-Portrait (Figure 2), she sits at her easel, leans back with her arm hooked on the chair, and looks out at us, boldly ready to paint forever.
A slide of this Self-Portrait was what first intrigued me about Leyster and prompted me to investigate her. Ann Sutherland Harris, a knowledgeable and accomplished baroque scholar, showed it in a 1971 lecture on women artists at Hunter College and thereby opened this world for me. Leyster's name was virtually unknown, and for many years into the writing of my dissertation in the mid-1970s I had to tell even prominent art historians who she was. But she has been discovered, revealed; her work is now included in the major art history textbooks, slides of her paintings have appeared on Advanced Placement exams in art history, and students now consider her part of the “canon.” She has even been featured in novels and mysteries. I am enormously satisfied by all of that.
Judith Leyster was virtually forgotten from her death in 1660 until her rediscovery in 1893 by the Dutch art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. Before 1893 no museum held any works attributed to her, her name was not recorded in sales catalogues, and no prints after her
2. Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, ca. 1633, oil on canvas
My sense that Leyster was forgotten, dismissed, overlooked, absent, and invisible engendered in me both indignation and a sense of mission. So my work began as an adventure. I was exploring unknown territory—trailblazing as a historian and a feminist. That was in the 1970s, when the world was different. It was not enough just to attribute paintings to her, though that was hard enough; I also had to address the question of their meaning. Where did Leyster fit in? What issues did she tackle? How did she use literature, proverbs, puns, and contemporary or religious notions of morality in her work? And how could I know this dead woman except through her cleverness and her wit and by understanding what was left of her—her paintings?
I began by exploring a painting that touched on many of these issues, with the underlying theme of the relationship between men and women—The Proposition (Mauritshuis, The Hague, Figure 3). In 1975 I gave a talk at the College Art Association meeting in Washington, D.C., entitled “Judith Leyster's Proposition: Between Virtue and Vice,” in one of the first sessions ever presented on women artists, chaired by the late Eleanor Tufts. I suggested a “woman's point of view” for this small, intimate painting with the tantalizing subject of sex for money. I followed the talk with an article on the work for the Feminist Art Journal that has been reprinted many times (and is still being reprinted every year for a college freshman handbook because it deals with art, men and women, and sex—a powerful combination). The experience felt like a great shared gift—I gave to Leyster by working on her and bringing her into the public eye, and she gave to me as I received early acknowledgment, praise, and even a few moments of fame. It was as if, beyond time, we were a team. My feeling of a powerful connection extended to my hosting annual birthday parties in Leyster's honor. Her birthday is not known, but she was baptized on July 28, 1609, so during the summers when I was in graduate school I gave little parties with Droste chocolate in the library; one year I
Leyster's reputation rose in the 1980s. For many artists, being the subject of a monograph confirms an established reputation and market interest. For Leyster, the publication of my monograph on her in 1989 asserted her deserving status, and articles that I published on her from 1975 onward paved the way to new thinking about her, introducing her to the public and to my colleagues and calling attention to her complex approach to such issues as iconography, gender, and social status. These were articles on The Proposition; her Self-Portrait, which I believe to be her 1633 master's piece for the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke; and A Game of Tric-Trac—another work involving sexual innuendo. The last of these paintings, now at the Worcester Art Museum, was one that I tracked down relentlessly (I am quite proud of my detective work) before finding it in a small town in Pennsylvania. The Self-Portrait article was written for a festschrift celebrating Egbert Haverkamp Begemann's sixtieth birthday. Begemann—to whom I am most grateful for his accessibility, his support, and, most of all, his numerous probing questions—was both the outside reader for my dissertation and the consultant for the later Haarlem exhibition I guest curated, Haarlem: The Seventeenth Century.
Because I did not see Leyster in isolation—I was also curious about the community of artists in which she blossomed—she became the impetus for the Haarlem exhibition. Although the exhibition was held in 1983, planning for it began while I was completing my dissertation and my questions about the artist community were fresh and powerful. Philip Dennis Cate, director of the Rutgers University Art Gallery, was looking for a Dutch exhibition to mark the gallery's reopening as the Zimmerli Art Museum. I wanted to learn about the artists Leyster would have known and worked with and lived alongside of in Haarlem and about their connections to her and to each other—in documents, in the guild, in the proximity of their houses, in the similarity of their subjects, and even in marriage (Leyster's, for example, to Molenaer). Leyster was central to my making connections—but not the focus of the exhibition. That was, I thought, the way it should be—Leyster there with her contemporaries. It very much felt like a Haarlem reunion. I
3. Judith Leyster, The Proposition, 1631, oil on canvas
Many of the artists in the exhibition, as in seventeenth-century Haarlem, had family connections: they were fathers and sons, brothers, in-laws, cousins. But Leyster, unlike her colleagues, and indeed unlike
I did not mean to be the sole person to write on her; I wanted her to come to the attention of others, who would add their scholarly energy to further her well-deserved recognition. But Leyster's quick rise to prominence by the end of the 1980s, both in relation to my work and independent of it, caught me off guard. So I had—and still have—mixed feelings about the Leyster exhibition at the Frans Halsmuseum and the Worcester Art Museum in 1993. Organized in 1990 (not by me, although I served on the committee), it may have taken place too soon after I published my 1989 Leyster monograph. The independent scholar, even the “expert” on the exhibition subject, always plays a tenuous role amid museum professionals. In this case, I thought there was not enough time for historians to use my work judiciously, and I felt, at the same time, “ripped off” and roundly criticized when paintings in the exhibition that I had attributed to Leyster were “corrected” to “circle of Hals.” Nonetheless, I was pleased with the notice and the exposure others would give Leyster after centuries of silence.
During my many years of research and investigation I felt Leyster's immediate presence keenly in the city archives of Haarlem and Amsterdam, where the births of her own family and her siblings' and children's families are recorded. There the names of witnesses and family friends gave me a sense of engaging in art historical work that rebuilt her life and community. Each time I saw her name signed or inscribed on a document, I was startled at the physical evidence of her presence. I found my archival work addictive because I never knew if some new piece of the puzzle of her life would turn up on another page.
During my research on Leyster and on the larger subject of Leyster and Haarlem, I worked in the photo archives at the Frick Art Reference
At various times in my life I found that I could identify with Leyster in surprising ways. Years after completing my dissertation and after I had my children, I looked to Leyster, who had five children (only two of whom survived her), and reexamined how she managed her professional life with them—the arrangements and compromises she made. For instance, her signed and dated Tulip drawings from 1643 coincide with the birth of her daughter Helena in March of 1643. Working on small still lifes, possibly at a table with a cradle at her side, may have been one of her compromises. Indeed, the birth of children probably had a greater impact on Leyster than art historians have imagined. Often it is (still) claimed that Leyster stopped working after her marriage, but my archival work revealed that her first child, Joannes, was born in 1637, a year after she married, so I surmise it was not simply marriage but also the birth of the child that altered her career. I felt connected with Leyster not only as a mother but ultimately as a daughter. In the 1990s, many years after I began my work on her, I learned that her father, recorded as purchasing and then finally losing the brewery and his house, was actually a smalwercker (a “small-work weaver”), someone who made strips of cotton, wool, or silk: that is, he was part of Haarlem's large textile industry. It felt so familiar. I was not surprised. My own father worked in the ladies' garment industry in New York. No, the parallel is not close enough to have some deep meaning, nor is it a real coincidence, but it is another instance of what connects and keeps connecting me to Leyster across time. There was a familiarity,
My walking tours of both Haarlem and Amsterdam were especially powerful. I plotted on a map the streets in which Leyster lived and then tried to find those houses or approximate locations, only to discover that none of her residences from the seventeenth century are extant. But walking those streets, traveling the routes she had walked—seeing what she might have seen, following the paths to the market square and to the churches named in the baptismal notices of her children—seemed essential. I needed to find as much as I could. Although my writing would be public, the research and discovery felt intensely private; though my husband, Larry, traveled with me frequently and patiently to libraries and museums, I took those street walks alone. I can bring back the sense of them even now as I sit at my desk so many years later. They would remain evocative throughout the years as I went back to retrace them or even found myself on one of them by accident, traversing the city and suddenly recognizing where I was. My heart would race. She had walked here.
I think it is a gift to find such deep fulfillment and satisfaction in one's work. But I also found a place, and maybe even a time, where I fit. I still think this, and even now I can close my eyes and see the swans on the Hof Vijver by the RKD in The Hague or the canal boats on the Herengracht in Amsterdam, or I can walk down narrow streets with stepped-gabled roofs in Haarlem and feel that something special connects me to this place and, yes, across time, to Judith Leyster.
As I have indicated in my essay, over the years I have gone through periods of being more and sometimes less engaged in working on Judith Leyster. In the spring of 2001, while I was working at the RKD in The Hague, I decided to look her up once again.
“Looking her up” means going through boxes of photographs. I finished the formal ones and then went on to the temporary (Voorordening) files—those where the photos are cut up but not yet pasted onto the usual gray card stock. Photographs could be in these temporary
As I went through these stuffed files (10–12 folders in two boxes), I admired some of the black-and-white reproductions and occasionally flipped them over to see where they were from. They were repeatedly stamped “Tent. Leyster 93–94” (Tent. is the Dutch abbreviation for tentoonstelling, meaning “exhibition”). I did not think much of the stamping and kept going. But some of the photographs were particularly familiar, and I checked and these also said “Tent. Leyster 93–94”—the same.
I suddenly realized that all of these photos had been cut from my own Leyster book! Indeed, I knew my publisher had generously given the RKD an unbound copy of my plates to cut up for their photograph files. But all the photos read “Tent. Leyster 93–94” instead of “Hofrichter 1989.” The exhibition reference is to the 1993–94 catalogue by James Welu and Pieter Biesboer. All my hard work (which was fundamental to their exhibition) was now attributed to them!
Yes. I brought the misattribution to the attention of the administrators and explained. They saw. They understood. I know it was not malicious. But I was told it would be difficult and would take a long time to repair. (Some files, I have been assured, have since been corrected.)
How could I work for years on Leyster and then see all my work, all the photographs from my book, stamped with another name? I told them, “This is how women are written out of history.”
1. Leyster is the last name taken by her father, Jan Willemsz. It was also the name he gave to his house and later to his brewery, and he probably took the name from the site. Leyster (leidstar or leidster) means “Leading Star,” and she herself punned on that name in her monogram: a conjoined J, L, and star.
2. See chapters 9 and 10 in this book.
3. I wrote my master's thesis on Leyster (a general survey of her work that laid a foundation for my later work) under the direction of Harris at Hunter College, City University of New York. Harris also co-curated, with Linda Nochlin, the groundbreaking “Women Artists 1550–1950” (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976).
4. Leyster appears in general survey texts: Laurie Schneider Adams, Art across Time, vol. 1 (Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999), 664, illus. 18.48 (The Last Drop, Philadelphia); Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, 4th ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), 824–25,
5. F.F. Hofrichter, “The Eclipse of a Leading Star,” in Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World, exhib. cat. (Worcester, England: Worcester Art Museum, 1993), 115–22.
6. I would like to once again thank the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for their Award in Women's Studies in 1978, which helped give credibility to my dissertation work; the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), which provided a travel grant in 1979; and the Millard Meiss Fund of the College Art Association, for their contribution in publishing the monograph.
7. The painting was unnamed at the Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague, so in my work I named it (as I did several of her paintings), and the title The Proposition continues to be generally used. The notable exception to its use was by Pieter Biesboer (curator of the Frans Halsmuseum), who disagreed with the sexual implication of the title, so in the exhibition and in its catalogue Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World, the painting is referred to as Man Offering Money to a Young Woman (168–73, cat. no. 8).
8. Eleanor Tufts also included Leyster in her own book on women artists, Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists (New York: Paddington Press, 1974), which held a detail of Leyster's Self-Portrait on the cover. I dedicated my chapter “The Eclipse of a Leading Star,” which discusses Leyster's reputation, to the memory of Eleanor Tufts.
9. “Judith Leyster's Proposition: Between Virtue and Vice,” Feminist Art Journal 4 (1975): 22–26; reprinted in Feminism and Art History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary Garrard (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 173–81 (which has given Leyster and the painting the most exposure); Worlds of Art, ed. Robert Bersson (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 1991), 300–303; and Prelude and Passages: Program in Writing and Thinking, ed. Faculty Advisory Committee (Tacoma, Wash.: University of Puget Sound), freshman orientation text, annually from 1989 to the present. My work seems to have had a distinct and varied impact: The Proposition is featured as the frontispiece in Christopher Brown's Images of a Golden Past: Dutch Genre Painting of the 17th Century (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), was discussed and illustrated in Madlyn Millner Kahr's Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century (New York:
10. I would like to thank my fellow graduate students at Rutgers University who enthusiastically participated: Steve Arbury, Natalie Borisovets, Louise Caldi, Nancy Heller, Leslie Kessler, Betty Lipsmeyer, Barbara Listokin, Jane Rehl, John Beldon Scott, and Julie Williams.
11. For The Proposition, see note 9. For the Self-Portrait, see F.F. Hofrichter, “Judith Leyster's Self-Portrait: Ut Pictura Poesis,” in Essays in Northern European Art Presented to Egbert Haverkamp Begemann on His Sixtieth Birthday (Doornspijk, the Netherlands: Davaco, 1983), 106–9. Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., in Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1995), 156–58, has argued for an earlier date of ca. 1630. I wish to thank him for his patience with my many trips to the National Gallery of Art to “visit” her—even when the portrait was in storage and later being cleaned. For A Game of Tric-Trac, see F.F. Hofrichter, “Games People Play: Judith Leyster's A Game of Tric-Trac,” Worcester Art Museum Journal 7 (1983–84): 19–27. The acquisition of this painting by the Worcester Art Museum became the raison d'être for its sponsorship of the Judith Leyster exhibition years later (1993).
12. F.F. Hofrichter, Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland's Golden Age (Doornspijk, the Netherlands: Davaco, 1989), 14.
13. I am grateful to Mary Garrard (see her entry in this book) for the several conversations we have had over the years about this issue. Ironically, once Leyster became better known, I felt more keenly that I wanted to hold on to her in a new way and bought a painting (some twenty years after I first saw it) related to her work. It is a workshop piece of The Last Drop: two figures smoking and drinking with a full skeleton—a death—between them. The painting served as a document in discovering the skeleton in the original work by Leyster (now in Philadelphia), where the skeleton had been painted over. It made sense in many ways to have this work—an essential piece of evidence of her complex thinking—as other scholars went on to discover her.
14. I also worked in the archives of North Holland in Haarlem and the archives in The Hague and in Utrecht. I owe special thanks to Frans Tames of the Haarlem Municipal Archives for his help over the years.
15. Hofrichter, Golden Age, cat. no. 46.
16. Ellen Broersen, “‘Judita Leystar’: A Painter of ‘Good, Keen Sense,’” in Judith Leyster: A Dutch Master and Her World, 15.